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Globalization And Its Discontents

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. -- Woody Allen

By Saul Landau 

08/09/05 "ZMag"
-- -- The act of four alleged suicide bombers, three British born and one Jamaican born, who supposedly detonated themselves on July 7 to kill civilians on London public transport dramatized the globalization of resistance. Their numbers may still not be very large, wrote Patrick Cockburn, but they are numerous enough to create mayhem in Iraq and anywhere else they strike, be it in London or Sharm el Sheikh Independent, July 24).

Beneath current headlines, however, lurks Sir Isaac Newton's third law: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction?" 

Bush's decision to invade and occupy Iraq, while pursuing democracy and instigating regime change required violence and non violent manipulation. The resistance -- the other side of the Newtonian equation -- also contains violent and non violent elements.

The non violent sector opposed policies of the WTO, IMF and the free trade treaties, by taking to the streets in Seattle and other places where the rich and powerful made decisions affecting how the rest of the world lived. 

This diverse movement contains religious Muslims, anti-establishment students, small European farmers, U.S. factory workers and indigenous Latin American peasants. In New York on 9/11 and more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bali, Madrid, London and Egypt, horrible, suicidal violence answered violent state policies. The irrational side of resistance -- suicide bombers -- to imperial globalization, do not share the moral values of their countries of birth: England and Jamaica in the case of the July 7 bombers.

The value clash between corporate globalists and their opponents also takes place in the idea realm. Thomas Friedman articulates a liberal defense of the new order in his moralistic NY Times columns, his 1999 book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and his 2005 update The World is Flat. This new world consists of lightning fast markets, money, information, and rapid transformations of politics and culture. 

Friedman's globalization is both positive and inevitable. Those who benefit from this process that includes outsourcing by multinational companies from the U.S., Britain and other wealthy and modern nations share a symbiotic relationship with militarism. McDonald's needs McDonald Douglas, which stands for the military industrial complex, to enforce property rules, and insure expanded markets even to places where they're not wanted: rogue states that neither accept nor obey the rules of the new transnational corporate order.

Ronald McDonald and the three-fingered, de-sexed Mickey Mouse hardly reveal, however, the savagery with which the Bush Administration has pursued the extension of the new order that Friedman extols. The residents of devastated Falluja and tens of thousands of families of dead Iraqi and Afghan civilians can testify to that. Paul Bremer, Bush's man in Iraq for the first two years of occupation, forced the privatization clause into the Iraqi constitution, so as to put the real US stamp on the invasion. The Friedman vision of American open, consumer culture in Baghdad has already cost more blood and destruction than anticipated.

McDonald's, however, goes beyond being an icon for America. Friedman's beloved technologies have also helped suck more labor out of human beings. Along with microwave ovens, McDonald's allows women to supersize their families in minutes and thus spend more time in offices and factories. 

Techno-change occurs now in weeks, so a question that Friedman used in 1999 as an illustration -- How fast is your modem?" -- has become obsolete. Concepts of time and space, thanks to the internet and email, have changed as well. But Friedman gets carried away with the possibilities without analyzing objectively the darker side.

The bar code alone has replaced millions who once did inventory, email and robot phones have taken the place of millions of women who once toiled as secretaries and switchboard operators. Much of recent progress has meant either replacing workers with machines or exporting production to places with drastically lower labor costs, no environmental regulation or workplace oversight and no taxes like Mexico, Honduras and of course China and its neighbors. 

Fiber optic and digital innovations along with satellite communications have also increased productivity. This means that salesmen and executives, repair personnel and technicians no longer enjoy down time. The new technology has also increased the degree of cultural trivia and institutionalized loneliness. Advertisers offer consumers new toys like cell phones, laptops, Blackberrys and I-pods, commodities with which to have new experiences. In fact, these fun gadgets make people more productive, and more stressed. Millions of individuals experience the solitude of hours in their cars stuck in daily traffic jams, talking with their office on the cell; kids lock their doors and play video and computer games. The glories of western life!

Friedman poses the possibilities of development thanks to the technology that allows capital to invest around the world in nanoseconds -- without restrictions. But these new opportunities have also removed limits on greed. Without considering consequences, speculators ruin or make economies, which Friedman converts in his morally relativistic sensibility into a process that "turns the whole world into a parliamentary system, in which every government lives under the fear of a no-confidence vote."

Indeed, Latin American governments have fallen, e.g. Argentina, thanks to such economic activities! More importantly, speculators saw profits in buying public property like water in Bolivia and Detroit, forcing up the price of a human necessity, as if it were a luxury item. 

Those who seek ever more comfort and convenience also tend to discard history as unworthy sentimentalism. For Friedman, the "olive tree" signifies a tradition whose time has passed. Think of laboratory created olive oil! Old cultures had their historical era and should move quietly like ancient elephants to the burial ground. 

The olive tree side of the world has become witness to a vast increase in poverty as globalization skews ever more world income distribution. On July 26, UPI reported that the hunger crisis in Niger has also had an impact on neighboring nations, affecting at least 2.5 million people in Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The U.N. Office for the oordination of Humanitarian Affairs Monday said 1.1 million people will need food aid in Mali this year, mainly in the regions of Moptu, Timbuktu and Gao.

Similarly, Friedman tends to gloss over the pounding given to the environment by the increase in fossil fuel burning. Scientists monitoring a glacier in Greenland issued urgent warnings over the dramatic shrinking of a glacier's boundary probably because of melting brought about by climate change. . . Experts believe any change in the rate at which the glacier transports ice from the ice sheet into the ocean has important implications for increases in sea levels around the world. If the entire Greenland ice sheet were to melt into the ocean it would raise sea levels by up to 23 feet, inundating vast areas of low-lying land, including London and much of eastern England (Steve Conner, Independent, July 24).

Friedman does, however, accurately foresee that the transfer of the old world order to the new will not occur peacefully. As the bombings of civilian targets of US allies show, the resistance to globalization includes those who see suicide as their weapon of resistance. He sees them as reactionary and ignorant, trying to hold back the inevitable.

Compare the fanaticism of suicide bombers with a Friedman's ethnocentrism that leads him to conclude that balancing a Lexus with an olive tree is something every society has to work on every day. Millions in the poor parts of the world have no interest in balancing the Lexus with their version of olive trees. They don't have any more olive trees. Indeed, Israelis -- new order people -- routinely chop down the trees of old order Palestinians.

But Friedman, the pithy salesman for mega corporate progress, thinks that our own society has reached the proper balance. America at its best takes the needs of markets, individuals and communities all utterly seriously. And that's why America, at its best, is not just a country. It's a spiritual value and role model, the nation that invented cyberspace and the backyard barbecue, the Internet and the social safety net, the SEC and the ACLU."

In my America, shopping is the universal spiritual value. Maybe add flag waving and barbecues! But globalization means spreading a culture of corporate brand names and 24/7 sales pitches. Rogue States who refuse to embrace this order are targets of regime change. But if Cuba and Syria, for examples, adapt to the demands of the McDonald's-Disney order they will not become like us. They will simply lose their cultures, become poorer and more stressed.

Those resisting corporate globalizing violently and non-violently don't yet have clear alternatives, but they are absolutely justified in saying BASTA YA!

Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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